There are things food writers in their right minds and based in the South should just not own up to in print. And this is one of them: I don’t particularly care about... biscuits.
This is not to be confused with, “I don’t really care for biscuits.” They’re okay I guess—assuming we mean the round flour things that seem to come with the meal hereabouts—as long as the margarine in them is melted. But biscuits are not on my food radar. I don’t make them, I don’t crave them, I don’t notice who has good ones.
John Craig, though, he might be my karmic biscuit complement. He lays no claim to being a foodie, in fact he is a business guy, president of the Market Square District Association.
But he pays careful attention to biscuits, has since he was a kid living somewhere in West Hills. And now he is the force behind Knoxville’s International Biscuit Festival, scheduled for June 5; the grand scheme will be announced at a press event sometime next week.
“Who doesn’t love a biscuit?” is the motto for the festival, and it’s the first thing Craig has to say on the topic, too. Followed by, “It’s a great food, an essential Southern food.”
He doesn’t pause for a second when I ask if he prefers biscuits and gravy, or cheddar biscuits with seafood, or biscuits with soup at lunch. “Yes. Biscuits. All.”
Does he bake them himself? “I just made a batch yesterday,” he tells me.
Craig’s grandmother, Lena Belle Craig, showed him how. “She pretty much stuck to the basic White Lily recipe, though she’d occasionally go out of the box and do cat-head biscuits.” (Sadly, my history of biscuit complacence required me to turn this term over to an Internet search engine. They’re called this because they are supposed to be as big as a cat’s head!)
Lena Belle, who grew up in Williamsburg, Ky., didn’t know how to cook anything when she married his grandfather and moved to Knoxville. “I remember she said her first biscuits were, ‘Horrible, horrible,’” says Craig. “But then her mother-in-law ended up teaching her, and she ended up teaching me.”
That is probably my missing biscuit link. The only biscuit knowledge we passed down in my Williamsburg, Va. clan was how to properly rap the can of Hungry Jack dough against the shiny metal refrigerator door handle so it would open with a satisfying “pop.”
His grandmother passed away about 10 years ago, but Lena Belle would probably be proud of Craig and his biscuit festival. He says the idea first started with fellow Knoxville promoters Mickey Mallonee and Robin Hamilton egging him on. They’re still part of this event’s Biscuit Brain Trust. “That’s what we call ourselves,” he says. “There’s a lot of alliteration in this event.”
I don’t think I’m going to be invited to be in the BBT. I’m too honest—told John Craig there was only one biscuit I could remember that seemed worth crossing the street for, a hearty-nutty sweet-dense but not heavy whole wheat biscuit. And it’s not even from around here, but was served (and is still served) at the Bluebird Cafe in Athens, Ga., after some University of Virginia college friends and I waited on a sidewalk to be seated for, like, 45 minutes.
Yep, sorry, I can only come up with another state’s biscuit from too many years back to mention. But this did not bother our biscuit man John Craig.
“That’s what’s great,” he says. “Everyone has their own favorite memory—biscuits are one of those things that bring people together.”
I’ll agree to that. But let me state for the record, I’m still never going to like biscuits and gravy.